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MEDICAL: Insurance Troubles

I was planning to make a post to let folks know that today’s the day for my cardiac ablation—the procedure I was talking about in my previous medical update. By the time most of you read it, the procedure would probably be done and I could answer questions and show off my newly ablated heart. However, something went awry along the way, and that thing is my medical insurance.

Apparently, the craptastic version that is available to me is only a “limited plan” and doesn’t cover cardiac ablation at all. Period. And since I’m a single person with a decent job, with no dependents, no disabilities, I’m too “rich” to qualify for Medicaid and too young to qualify for Medicare, I also don’t qualify for any of the various kinds of financial assistance that the hospital offers.

I’m in the process of making phone calls, sending emails, and contacting help desks to chase down all the information and options that I can. It’s possible a mistake may have been made somewhere along the line, or that a corner-case exception can be found, in which case we can just reschedule the procedure for a few weeks from now. However, failing that, the only option open to me is to pay for the whole hundred-thousand-plus-dollar procedure out of pocket … or just stall until the open enrollment period for insurance comes around again and hope that miraculously some better option is suddenly on the table.

In the meanwhile, I’ll just be here with a fluttering, fibrillating heart, hoping that my condition remains as benign as it’s been since we discovered it. I mean, as long as I feel well, I can carry on normally. I’ll take my meds and do what the doctors suggest and hope that we figure out a way to take this to the next prescribed step before my situation changes significantly.

I am NOT going to turn this into a rant about the healthcare coverage problem we have here in the U.S. … and really, I’d appreciate if no one did so in the comments, either. I certainly have a lot of very strong feelings on that subject, and I’ve aired them many different places. Right now, though, I don’t want to add that debate to the things that are stressing me out.

What’s On the Drawing Board

Yesterday I made a post about some changes in my schedule, including broadly stating that I was going to devote more time to cartooning and some personal projects. Since I’m doing my best to eliminate vague-booking in my social media, today I’m gonna spill the details. (Well, SOME of the details. I have to leave some kind of mystery to keep you all interested enough to come back for updates.)

First of All, Just Draw!
The most basic thing I’m going to do is set aside some time just to draw—to sketch and doodle without agenda. In high school and even college, this is something I did naturally. Because I was so good at active listening and recalling what I heard, I would doodle in my notebooks rather than take notes. This drove my teachers and parents crazy (not to mention any classmate who wanted to borrow my notebook), but since I was pulling a GPA over 3.75, no one could complain. Because I was consciously concentrating on the instructors, I was drawing only semi-consciously, and all sorts of ideas, proto-designs, story nuggets, and other bits of creative raw material just magically appeared on the pages. Later, I could sort through that material on the weekend or in the evening and actively develop it into usable material.

This whole process continued to work even into my professional career because of how the business world of the ‘80s and ‘90s LOVED long meetings. The more my job transferred from creator to manager, the more meetings I had to attend, and the more raw material I generated. I’m STILL pulling ideas for gag comics, short stories, and other creative projects from those old notebooks.

But in recent years, I’ve stopped having so many meetings. And the ones I do attend usually require my direct participation, so I can’t get into a doodling zone. Because of that, I’m just not generating new ideas much anymore, and THAT is a problem! So I’m going to set aside time once or twice a week for me to go to a café or restaurant or park and just draw.

I’m sure some of the material I generate, perhaps MOST of it, will show up on my Instagram feed as one of the “Today’s Doodle” series. But SOME of it will be good, high quality project seeds or comic gags. Some of it may be images worth developing for use as stickers, or pins, or other salable merch.

Closing Existing Accounts
Over the past year or so I’ve taken on a few drawing projects that have stalled for one reason or another. (Okay, the reason almost invariably has been my available time and energy.) One of the FIRST things I’m going to do is close those accounts. I’ve got two character designs I have to develop, and a story that needs to be illustrated. I’m going to get going on those projects BEFORE I start developing new ones for myself.

Comics! More Comics!
Several times in the past, I’ve done single-panel or strip-style comics regularly. And even though in my early 20s I consciously, purposefully steered my career AWAY from that medium, I find in my 50s that I’m definitely drawn toward it (pun intended). Now, I’ve had some fleeting success in the past couple of decades with the “Bolt & Quiver” strips I did for Dungeon Adventures and Kobold Quarterly magazines, and the “10’x10’ Toon” single panel comics I did for KQ and as a weekly webcomic. Admittedly, the success was “fleeting” mostly because I stopped producing new material, as opposed to the audience losing interest.

Lately, I’m feeling quite motivated to get back into doing comics, and so I’m going to be spending time this month developing a new comic project with an eye toward launching it over the summer. I’m also going to spend some time developing an idea that my friend and business partner Owen K.C. Stephens and I came up with a couple of years ago—and if that goes well, I may launch THAT comic sometime over the summer, too.

Finally, I’m going to take a leap into a new market that I never even considered in the past—I’m going to start developing and submitting comics to The New Yorker. There’s actually a pretty interesting story about how I came to the decision to give this a whirl, and I’ll spin it for your entertainment in another post some time.

Caricature Practice
I’ve never been a particularly good caricaturist. This despite the fact that from a very young age one of my strongest artistic influences was Al Hirschfeld. I can see the impact his line work and minimalist technique have had on my own style. And over the years I’ve tried my hand a caricature on many different occasions. The problem isn’t so much that I’m bad at it, it’s that I’m unpredictable. Sometimes I can really nail a person’s essence, first try, minimal lines. But other times, no matter how long I work, or how detailed a breakdown I use, I just can’t make my drawing look like the person I’m seeing. 

So I’m going to spend some of my time over the next few months practicing caricature. Not the least of this will be by attending a weekend-long caricaturing seminar given by MAD Magazine’s own Tom Richmond. In fact, I’m REALLY looking forward to that seminar! But then I’ll follow up by practicing caricatures of people in the news and actors/characters from newly released movies—something along the lines of the work that Hirschfeld himself did, only for geek culture rather than Broadway theater.

Truth be told, this caricature practice is the work I’m most likely NOT to share. At least, not unless I’m regularly producing images that I’m proud of. 

Step Three: PROFIT!
Since all this cartooning will be done in what’s essentially my “work time,” and since I can’t afford to keep paying myself for that time indefinitely, EVENTUALLY I’ll have to find a way to generate revenue from this work. To that end, I’ve got a few ideas.

FREELANCE: I’m buying my own time for the next couple of months, but after that I’m going to put that time back on the open market. That is, I’m going to make myself available for freelance work, and I’m going to put a PRIORITY on getting cartooning gigs. That might be big as in doing whole projects for game publishers, medium as in doing illustrations or comics for magazines and websites, or small as in taking on individual commissions. I’ll for sure post a price sheet when I’m ready to re-open that particular door.

MERCH: At the end of last year I explored producing a few different items that could be popular as general merchandising. Most notably, I’ve figured a way to produce very nice “fancy pins” of the type that are enjoying a lot of popularity among fandom lately. I’m now looking at what the best way is to bring them out and make them available for purchase. Etsy? Shopify? A completely boot-strapped online store? Anyway, once I figure that out, I can begin trying to build some kind of income stream from the books and other bits of merch I’ve already got—AND start creating more.

PATREON: Some of you will be familiar with Patreon.com. For you, this probably seems like a no-brainer. Of course I should set up a Patreon! But I bet that the majority of folks who enjoy my cartooning still have no idea what Patreon is, and that is something I’ll need to overcome before I can do one successfully.

Why am I being so cagey about it? Because THAT’S going to be the topic of my NEXT blog post, of course! C’mon back soon and learn the details of WHAT a Patreon campaign is, WHY it’s a good fit for me, and HOW I plan to make it happen.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

The other day I made a post giving details for past medical vague-booking, and that got me thinking that there was ANOTHER bit of vague-booking I’ve done that I never got around to explaining. So I guess it’s high time that I did an info dump on what’s going on in my professional life, too.

If I recall correctly, my mysterious post said something about “change being in the air,” with exactly WHAT the change would be remaining undecided. And yeah . . . life was kinda like that for a few weeks. But now it’s all been figured out, and as of today, the plan is being put into action. So here’s the dealio . . .

THE CHANGE THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN
Let’s start with the path that wound up being not taken.

I really like living in the state of Washington in general, and in the greater Seattle area in specific. After spending five years in the San Diego area, I came to realize that the green hills and laid back culture was a much better fit for me, and though I’d enjoyed being in an area where it was 72° and sunny nearly every day of the year, I was just more comfortable in the overcast and cooler Pacific Northwest. However, I’ve always said that for the right job, I’d leave again—I’d just know that when that job had run its course I’d want to return to the PNW as quickly as possible.

About 8 weeks ago, a job like that came onto my radar. It was at a really big digital game publisher (like top of the industry big) and would have put me right in the thick of their physical publishing narrative projects—books, graphic novels, etc. It was a company where I already had friends (including the hiring manager) in an area where I knew lots of people, and it was a high level position. Basically, it was “one of those opportunities,” so I threw my hat into the ring.

No need to make a long story out of this, although I’d have been a good choice for the gig, another highly qualified candidate got the nod. Often in cases like this, people come along and say “tough luck,” or “sorry you didn’t get it,” or “bad beat,” but I have a hard time thinking those apply here. Because in the end, although I didn’t get that particular job, I DO get to stay here in the PNW, which is where I want to be.

Of course, that doesn’t make me immune to other changes. And although I’m not headed down to SoCal again, I can feel the sands shifting beneath my feet.

WHAT’S BEEN UP
For the past two years (and a little bit) I’ve been working as a contractor at Wizards of the Coast. Because it’s been such a long time, and because I’ve had such a nifty title—D&D Producer—it’s been easy for folks to forget (or to never realize) that this has been a contract gig, but it always has been. I was brought in to do a specific task, achieve a specific set of goals, and help out in other ways as needs arose. I’ve helped manage the production of most of the recent D&D products—Tomb of Annihilation, Tales of the Yawning Portal, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes—plus a few that are still upcoming (like the recently announced Dragon Heist and Dungeon of the Mad Mage).

As much as I’ve enjoyed that, and as much as my work has been appreciated, though, it has always been done with the knowledge that the position itself, the seat I was sitting in, was a temporary one. And round about the beginning of this year, it became clear that the need for that temporary seat was lessening. Basically, working together, the team and I have solved many of the problems that required me to be brought on in the first place, which means that many of the tasks that have occupied my time are going away (many of them are gone already).

Of course, there are still some tasks that remain on my desk, and my broad set of skills and experiences makes me a handy guy to have around as a “utility infielder” on the bench. But those things no longer constitute a full-time slice of the pie. So back in January I began working with the team leaders to figure out how much of my time they DID need and how much extra resource they wanted to keep reserved for “on call” availability. It was a more complicated question than anyone really suspected, but in the end we sorted it out.

WHAT’S COMING UP
As of this week and running through the end of the year (and hopefully longer), I’ll still be a contractor at Wizards, but I’ll only be there half-time (about 20 hours a week). I’ll still be performing some key functions—contacting and supervising freelance writers and editors, for instance—and I’ll still be available for work “off the bench.” But slice it any way you want, I am no longer a full-time Wizard.

I’m also still doing rewriting work for Viz Media on various manga titles. (I’m currently working on titles such as Ultraman, Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, and the upcoming Record of Grancrest War.) Since starting my gig at Wizards, that work has been on evenings and weekends—now it gets at least partially rolled back into the work week.

But that still leaves a gap in my time and, let’s be honest, my earnings. But I’ve managed to save some money during the past two years, and I’m going to use some of that to pay myself NOT to go immediately back into the freelance pool. I’m going to buy some of my own time to focus it on cartooning projects I’ve had sitting on the backburner for a while (in some cases for years).

Of all the various creative activities I do professionally, cartooning is the one I love the most. It’s also the one I’ve had the least success at (particularly if you measure “success” as “generating enough money to pay the rent,” and I don’t by any means limit my definition to that).

What are these projects? When can you see them? And how do I plan to turn personal projects into an income stream? All very good questions. Questions that I intend to answer in my NEXT blog post, because on top of everything else I’ve got to start giving people a reason to come back to my blog on a regular basis so I can be sure that my family, friends, and fans know about ALL my current and upcoming projects!

SUMO: Ozeki Tochinoshin

From the beginning of the Natsu Basho, I was talking about the fact that sekiwake Tochinoshin was on a run to get a promotion to ozeki. And from the beginning we all knew pretty much what he needed to do to get it. He needed 11 or more wins with preferably at least one win over an ozeki or yokozuna. That path was made more difficult when yokozuna Kisenosato, and both ozeki—Takayasu and Goeido—went kyujo [absent due to injury or illness] before Tochinoshin could even have a crack at them, leaving just yokozuna Hakuho and yokozuna Kakuryu in the tournament. Basically, he had to win half of his available matches at that top-most level. Making it even more difficult, he had NEVER beaten Hakuho in an official match (though he had occasionally gotten the better of the yokozuna in practice and in exhibition matches)—he was 0–25 against him in honbasho [grand tournaments].

Of course, by now we all know how it turned out. Tochinoshin went 13–2, including a first ever win over Hakuho, and finished as runner-up for the yusho [tournament championship]. So the whole sumo world was pretty dang certain that Tochinoshin had passed the test and earned his promotion to ozeki. But, sumo being the sport it is, it still wasn’t absolutely certain—the Kyokai [sumo association] has the final word, and they could hold up the promotion for any number of reasons.

But they didn’t. On Monday following the basho, the Kyokai announced that on Wednesday they would give Tochinoshin his promotion. (That’s how it happens in sumo, the Kyokai has final and absolute authority, and they almost never do anything of consequence without first letting the entire world know what they’re planning.)

The promotion “ceremony” is short, formal, and very Japanese. A few members of the Kyokai show up at the rikishi’s heya [sumo stable] and meet with the candidate and his oyakata [stable master]. They offer a big piece of parchment with the promotion degree written in hand-brushed calligraphy. The candidate bows deeply, accepts the parchment, makes a halting, nervous, formal statement of acceptance, and it’s all over. Then the other members of the heya bring in tables filled with blessed sake, blessed rice, and other food items that are considered to confer good luck and good health. Most notably, they bring in several large, whole sea breams (and invariably the papers the next day are filled with photos of the candidate holding one of the fish aloft by its tail).

Like I said . . . VERY Japanese.

Anyway, now Tochinoshin is officially an ozeki, and there’s a case to be made that he’s the strongest of the current crop. Takayasu has been dealing with recurring shoulder injuries, and although Goeido has been healthy (and even managed to win a yusho last year) he also has been historically inconsistent, ending up kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] at least once or twice a year. In point of fact, both Takayasu and Goeido are going to be kadoban in July, and there’s a very real chance that BOTH of them could end up make-koshi [majority of losses] and get themselves demoted.

Of course, Tochinoshin is also has an uncertain future as an ozeki. He is doing great now, but he’s got two very nasty knee injuries in his past, and he’s always one bad fall away from being hobbled again. Then there’s the matter of his age. He’s 30 years old, making his one of the oldest initial ozeki promotions in modern history—we shouldn’t expect him to hold the rank for years the way Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku did.

On the other hand, with the way things are getting shaken up at the top of the banzuke, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Tochinoshin will continue to challenge for and even win yusho. If he can manage to do that in back to back tournaments, or even win one and finish as runner-up multiple times, he could yet earn a promotion to yokozuna. But I think that’s going to have to happen relatively quickly (in the next 12–16 months) or it’s not going to happen at all.

Still, now is a time for celebrating! Omedetou [congratulations] to ozeki Tochinoshin! I’m really looking forward to seeing him fight in July!

©Mainichi Shimbun, used without permission

MEDICAL: Our Story So Far

You may recall that I had an unexpected visit and stay in the hospital back in February, and since then have only on the rare occasion vague-booked about that and follow-up medical news. Well, it’s time for me to rectify that and spin the whole tale for those who are interested to know it. (Okay, it won’t be the WHOLE tale. I mean it’s my private medical information, but I don’t mind sharing the top-level details with the world. Still, be warned—even the “top-level details” are long, meandering, and have the occasional bit of blood and medical ickiness in them.)

IT ALL STARTED ON VALENTINE’S DAY
Actually, it was February 12th, but close enough. I wound up with a cut that was not closing up as quickly as I’d have liked, so I had some friends take me to the emergency room. By the time the doctors saw me, the wound had stopped bleeding and wasn’t so bad that it required stitches or other treatment, so I thought I was just going to be discharged. That’s when the doctor inquired about my elevated heart rate. I figured it was just a combination of adrenalin from the excitement and nerves from being in the hospital, but after sitting calmly for a bit, it didn’t go down. Indeed, after administration of a heart-slowing medicine it STILL didn’t go down, so I got to stay overnight.

After many tests, various different drugs, and TWO nights in the hospital, it was determined that I had nothing worse (nor better) than atrial fibrillation (a-fib for short). They prescribed some meds and arranged an appointment with a cardiologist (in 4 weeks, telling me that any danger this posed to me was at least not immediate). They also told me that my bloodwork indicated that I was diabetic, so they prescribed some more meds and arranged an appointment with my primary care physician. And then they turned me loose.

FIRST: THE DIABETES
Look, I’m middle-aged and fat. Diabetes has been on the warning track for me for years, so this didn’t come as a complete shock. But looking at the numbers, it seems as though I just barely wandered into the diabetic camp because my A1C was 0.2 over the trigger level, and that trigger level was what we game designers call a “derived stat.” That is, it isn’t a single value for everyone, it’s determined by a combination of other factors—in this case, age, weight, and some lifestyle factors. But if I were ten years younger, or fifty pounds lighter, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed as diabetic.

Anyway, I met with the doctor, discussed my diet (which was already pretty close to what they recommended) and my eating habits (my big sin was only eating two meals a day rather than three), and got set up with a daily regimen to test my blood sugar and increase my exercise, even slightly.

From the start, my glucose was not only in the “below danger” range, it was in the “damn, that’s right where we want it to be” range. And after three months my A1C (which is a measure of average blood sugar for the past three months) was back well below the trigger level. So if my readings were like that in February, I’d never have been diagnosed as diabetic. But they were, and the funny thing about diabetes is that once you’ve been diagnosed, there’s no “undoing” it. You’re always going to be considered diabetic, you just may be managing it well.

So that’s where I am now. Managing it well. Of course, to be fair, I probably WOULDN’T have made the few crucial adjustments that were necessary to get me here without that initial diagnosis. And most of all, I definitely wouldn’t have lost the 20+ lbs. I’ve done if not for those few crucial adjustments. So overall I’d say that this diabetes diagnosis has actually been really GOOD for me.

Still, it feels weird to realize that if I was starting from scratch, I wouldn’t be in the “got it” box, but since I AM in the “got it” box I’ll never get out no matter what my blood readings are.

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE HEART OF THE MATTER
After a follow-up EKG and other little in-office tests, the cardiologist told me that he’d HOPED that my heart would have gone back into normal sinus rhythm on its own. It seems that a-fib is super common, though for reasons no one has really pinned down. About 30% of people will have an encounter with it at some point in their lives, and most don’t need more than short term medication to set things right. I was not one of these people. My heart seemed to LIKE beating twice as fast as it should, and wasn’t going to give it up without a fight. Also, tests revealed that on top of the a-fib I also had an atrial flutter (an arrhythmia which, in fact might, might be the cause of the a-fib in the first place). It was explained to me that these were basically electrical problems within my heart—some nerves in there were sending false signals and causing the heart to beat in non-ideal ways.

The cardiologist put me on a couple of different beta-blockers and a blood thinner, because while the a-fib itself wasn’t likely to cause any immediate problems to my heart, it would cause blood to occasionally pool in my heart. This can have the unfortunate side effect of creating clots that my heart would eventually shoot out and straight into my brain, which is the classic description of a stroke. So I’ve been going to the anti-coagulation clinic once a week just to make sure that they’re keeping my blood in that Goldilocks-style just-right thickness where it won’t clot in my heart but it also won’t cause massive nosebleeds, bruising, and other hematological unpleasantness.

He also scheduled the first surgical procedure to try to fix this—a cardioversion.

SHOCK TO THE HEART AND YOU’RE TO BLAME!
(Yeah, I know I got the lyrics wrong, but it amuses me!)

Cardioversion is where they chemically slow down and technically stop your heart, then use defibrillators to start it again. Basically, it’s the “did you try turning it off and turning it on again?” procedure. The theory is that when you restart the heart it will automatically go to its “factory setting,” and the hope is that it will stay there for a while—perhaps for good. The procedure takes about five minutes to perform.

I had my cardioversion in early May, and it did indeed get my heart back beating in a normal, no flutter, sinus rhythm at the appropriate rate. However, that didn’t last, and overnight my heart went back to its a-fib and a-flutter.

HOW CAN YOU MEND A BROKEN HEART?
At a follow-up meeting with the cardiologist, we started talking seriously about the next procedure—cardiac-ablation. There are, it was explained to me, two main types of this—one to target the flutter, and one to target the a-fib. Both are essentially the same thing—sticking two catheters up a vein and into the heart, then using them to burn out the nerves that are misfiring. In a flutter ablation, this is generally one little patch (often in the right atrium). In an a-fib ablation (also called a pulmonary vein isolation), it is several larger patches where the pulmonary veins enter the left atrium. The flutter ablation is an out-patient procedure that takes about four hours to perform. The a-fib ablation takes a little longer and requires and overnight stay in the hospital for observation.

I FIX BROKEN HEARTS, I’M YOUR HANDYMAN
So that pretty much brings everything up to date. I have a flutter ablation scheduled for mid-June. The hope is that it will at least resolve the atrial flutter (which apparently is the more dangerous of the two conditions) and either ALSO correct the a-fib as a side effect, or make the a-fib easier to control with meds. In the meanwhile, I’m still going to the anti-coagulation clinic once a week (which is okay, because those folks are very nice).

Now that I’ve gone to the trouble to write all this down, I’ll be more likely to post updates, since those will be quick and easy with the big background story already written.

I’m feeling fine. One of the weird things (that seems to flummox many of the doctors I talk to) is that I have no secondary symptoms from the flutter or the a-fib. I feel 100% normal, and only notice that anything’s amiss when I take my pulse (which I now do several times a day). I’ve been as active as ever, even a little more so (particularly on the day when I got in the ring to try sumo for the second time in my life . . . but that’s another story), and haven’t had anything you could call chest pain or any shortness of breath that wasn’t appropriate to my situation (fighting a sumo wrestler is SUPPOSED to leave you a little winded). So I don’t need assistance or emergency prayers or anything like that. But I will take your good thoughts and well wishes, PARTICULARLY when the procedure itself comes around in a few weeks.

SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho Wrap-Up—A Tale of Two Yokozuna

Well, the Natsu Basho is now in the books. Yokozuna Kakuryu surprised a lot of people (me included) by staying focused and pulling out a series of big wins in the final few days of the tournament, and earning his first ever back-to-back yusho [tournament championships]! Congratulations to him! Banzai!

Part of what makes this even more surprising is what a terrible year Kakuryu had in 2017. There were lots of pundits (me included) who thought that retirement was in his immediate future. Not only was he suffering from lingering injuries, even when he was healthy he rarely seemed to manage more than ten wins per tournament. I think you’ll find many commentaries where my description of Kakuryu was, “he really performs more like an ozeki.” It was clear that he had the skills to win a basho, and that he might put everything together once a year or so, but in MOST tournaments he was out of the yusho race before the middle weekend arrived. But he’s turned that all around this year. In 2018 Kakuryu has become the most reliable yokozuna we have, what with Hakuho and Kisenosato being knocked out due to injury, and Harumafuji having been forced to retire.

Now, to my mind there’s still an open question about how long Kakuryu can keep this up. His problem over the last few years has been more mental than physical—he just couldn’t maintain his focus for all fifteen days of a tournament, and he lost too many matches early in the tournament. The fact of the matter is, he kinda did that in this basho, too, losing to Shohozan on Day 4. The thing he did better was winning the matches against the upper ranked guys in the final days of the tournament, but even then there’s the fact that their numbers were severely thinned—with no ozeki left for him to face, and only Hakuho (!) as a fellow yokozuna. In years past, he’d have had to fight two other yokozuna and three ozeki.

So what I’m saying is that I’m not convinced that Kakuryu really has upped his game as much as the level of the competition around him has dropped to a level where he is a stand-out rather than an also-ran.

Which brings me to yokozuna Hakuho. I’m kinda worried about him. Late in the second week, I wrote a little commentary about how he clearly had lost some strength as compared to even six months ago. He still had his speed and his skills, but whereas in past tournaments he’d win the majority of his bouts by yorikiri [frontal force out], ending in the familiar pose of a half-squat near the ring’s edge, holding on to his opponent’s mawashi so that the guy didn’t fall into crowd, this time he won most of his matches by throws of one type or another. And even when he did get a yorikiri or oshidashi [frontal push out], it was with a mighty shove that often sent both the opponent and Hakuho off the dohyo.

Now, Hakuho has all kinds of legitimate reasons for being a little off his game this basho. He’s just finished being kyujo [absent due to injury] for two full tournaments, and it takes a while to regain all of one’s physical strength after a long layoff like that. What’s more, it was only in April that his father passed away, and that must have taken him away from his full routine of training and working out. Plus, of course, there’s always the simple fact that he is getting older, and he’s going to start losing SOME strength just naturally.

The question for Hakuho is, can he get back in the heya [sumo stable], refocus his training, and get back to the same level of strength that he had last year? Or is this just the new normal for him, and he’s going to have to learn to perform with a reduced level of raw power? If it’s the latter, we may soon be talking about Hakuho’s retirement. More and more of the strong, up and coming rikishi will come to their matches knowing that he has a weakness, and believing that they can exploit it—his aura of invulnerability will be gone.

All of this, plus the return of a banzuke that features three ozeki (and hopefully, with Kisenosato’s return, three Yokozuna) means that the Nagoya Basho is going to be a whole new kettle of sakana [fish]. It may well be that there ISN’T a single, most dominant rikishi in the crowd anymore, no prohibitive favorite, and that ANY of the top eight or ten rikishi has a realistic shot at taking the yusho—it all just depends on who puts together the right combination of effort, skill, and luck during the middle two weeks of July.

SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho Senshuraku [Final Day] (Day 15)

Holy cats! It’s senshuraku [the final day] of the 2018 Natsu Basho and this may be the most exciting Day 15 in recent memory! Yokozuna Kakuryu is alone atop the leaderboard with a 13–1 record after beating sekiwake Tochinoshin yesterday. That knocks the big Georgian’s record to 12–2 and leaves him alone in second place thanks to yokozuna Hakuho’s loss to sekiwake Ichinojo. (Seriously, go back and watch yesterday’s action if you haven’t seen it all for yourself. It was an epic day of sumo!)

So, what does that mean for the yusho [tournament championship]? 

First of all, Hakuho is out of contention. At 11–3, he’s just too far off the pace to make it up on senshuraku. However, he does still have a pivotal role to play in deciding the winner. Y’see, he fights against Kakuryu in today’s final match. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first thing that needs to happen, is that Tochinoshin must win his match against M5 Ikioi. If the sekiwake loses, then Kakuryu wins the yusho regardless of the outcome of his match. But, if Tochinoshin wins, then it all hangs on the yokozuna match up. If Kakuryu beats Hakuho, he secures the yusho. If, however, Hakuho wins, then it would force a one-match playoff between Kakuryu and Tochinoshin. I know which result I’m rooting for!

Saturday’s bout between Kakuryu and Tochinoshin was epic. The yokozuna won, but it was a very close call. There were two specific reasons he prevailed: 1. He was quick at the tachi-ai and got a morozashi [double inside grip] on Tochinoshin’s mawashi [belt], this is a huge advantage, but it might not have been enough except, 2. Tochinoshin’s right hand grip was shallow and so Kakuryu’s mawashi pulled loose, leaving the big man only one side to apply pressure from. Miraculously, he still was able to lift Kakuryu off his feet momentarily and threatened to hoist him out of the ring. But with such a loose grip on the right side, that soon became impossible, meaning he had to manufacture some kind of throw without having an inside grip for either arm—a ridiculously tough thing to do. The quality of Tochinoshin’s sumo can be measured, I think, by how long the match took despite Kakuryu having grabbed such an advantageous position. If the two of them have to fight again in a playoff, I wouldn’t bet on those same circumstances arising. 

I feel kind of bad for Hakuho. As I was talking about in my Friday commentary, it’s clear that he’s lost a bit of strength, and that was surely his undoing against Ichinojo. He just didn’t have the gas to overpower the big man, and Ichinojo fought defensively, not giving the yokozuna any real openings to exploit. After half a minute or so, the outcome became more or less a foregone conclusion. If this is how things are going to stay for him, I don’t know if Hakuho is going to make it to his goal of still being active for the 2000 Summer Olympics. 

As always on senshuraku, I like to put a focus on rikishi that are “on the bubble”—entering the day with 7–7 records and pretty much holding their fate in their own hands. A win today and they’re kachi-koshi [majority of wins], a loss and they’re make-koshi. There are six rikishi in this position, and as usual the Kyokai has cruelly set four of them up to fight against each other. M8 Yoshikaze faces M2 Abi, and M2 Shohozan must fight M6 Takarafuji. In each of these bouts, only one man can walk away with a kachi-koshi, which for sure makes for high drama.

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M17 Nishikigi (9–5) vs. M12 Asanoyama (7–7)—The first of today’s bubble matches. Asanoyama holds his fate in his own slapping hands. (0:32)
M11 Chiyonokuni (11–3) vs. M8 Kagayaki (9–5)—Chiyonokuni has pretty quietly had a terrific tournament. He’s currently tied with Hakuho for third place. For his efforts, he will get a kanto-sho [Fighting Spirit Prize]. (2:55)
M15 Kyokutaisei (9–5) vs. M7 Chiyomaru (5–9)—This has been Kyokutaisei’s debut tournament in the Makuuchi Division, and he’s shined. If he gets a tenth win, he’ll be awarded a kanto-sho [Fighting Spirit Prize] for his efforts. (3:25)
M8 Yoshikaze (7–7) vs. M2 Abi (7–7)—Here is one of our cruel match-ups—two on-the-bubble rikishi going head to head. Only one can get kachi-koshi and a promotion next basho. Who wants it more? (5:45)
M2 Shohozan (7–7) vs. M6 Takarafuji (7–7)—The other cruel match-up, but Shohozan has a little EXTRA incentive. If he wins AND if Kakuryu gets yusho, Shohozan will be awarded a shukun-sho [Outstanding Performance Prize]. (7:00)
M1 Tamawashi (7–7) vs. M4 Shodai (9–5)—The last of the bubble matches. Tamawashi will give himself a chance to get promoted to komusubi if he can get his kachi-koshi, and Shodai increases the chance that HE’LL get that spot if he can saddle Tamawashi with make-koshi. (8:40)
Sekiwake Tochinoshin (12–2) vs. M5 Ikioi (8–6)—Tochinoshin must win this match if he wants to stay eligible for a potential playoff. Also, he will get two special prizes—a kanto-sho [Fighting Spirit Prize] and a gino-sho [Technique Prize]. (11:55)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (13–1) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (11–3)—Let’s set aside the yusho implications, there is ALWAYS a sense of electricity in the air when two yokozuna meet. And although he’s out of the championship race, Hakuho wants to prove that he’s still the man to beat. Kakuryu, on the other hand, can get back-to-back yusho for the first time in his career if only he can win this bout. (13:15)

SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho (Day 14)

It’s the final weekend of the Natsu Basho, and things just keep getting more exciting. With sekiwake Tochinoshin’s upset loss yesterday, we now have a tie atop the leaderboard between him and yokozuna Kakuryu. And just one loss behind them is yokozuna Hauho! Today, the leaders go head to head, while Hakuho faces sekiwake Ichinojo. This could be the most exciting day of the basho.

Of course, we also have a set-up for something even more exciting. Our leaders are both 12–1, and Hakuho is 11–2. If Kakuryu beats Tochinoshin today, that would make him 13–1 and leave the sekiwake at 12–2. And if Hakuho beats Ichinojo, he’ll be tied with Tochinoshin. Then, on Sunday, if Hakuho beats Kakuryu (the two yokozuna will be fighting each other on senshuraku [the final day]) AND Tochinoshin beats whoever he must face, we’d end up with a tie for the yusho [tournament championship] and have to decide the victor through a three-way playoff!

If, on the other hand, Tochinoshin wins today, then he’ll regain the sole lead AND have a relatively easy match on Sunday against M5 Ikioi to cinch the yusho. And even if he did lose, he’d fall into a two-way playoff against the winner of the Kakuryu/Hakuho match.

Meanwhile, there are still a bunch of rikishi still fighting to get their kachi-kosh [majority of wins] or to stave off make-koshi [majority of losses]. I’m curious to see how many 7–7 rikishi we’ll have in Sunday’s matches . . . and how many of them will be cruelly paired up to fight against one another.

M8 Yoshikaze (6–7) vs. M17 Nishikigi (9–4)—A good match between two scrappy rikishi. This one has it all—a matta, a monoii, and a rikishi who is fighting to stave off make-koshi. (2:35)
M7 Ryuden (2–11) vs. M16 Aminishiki (3–10)—Two rikishi who are having pretty rotten tournaments. Today, though, they’re fighting for pride! (5:10)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (8–5) vs. M4 Shodai (8–5)—Both of these guys just picked up their kachi-koshi and are trying to reach double-digit wins. And Shodai is coming off handing Tochinoshin his first defeat of the tournament! (11:25)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (12–1) vs. sekiwake Tochnoshin (12–1)—This is the match of the day! Our two leaders going head to head! Whoever wins this match hold the yusho in his hands—a follow-up win tomorrow and it’s his. (14:20)
Sekiwake Ichinojo (7–6) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (11–2)—Hakuho must win this match if he wants to stay in contention for the yusho. Ichinojo is still looking for his kachi-koshi, and getting it with a win over Hakuho would solidify his claim that he’s finally moved his sumo to the next level. (16:10)

SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho (Day 13)

Here we are, Day 13 of the Natsu Basho, and sekiwake Tochinoshin is still unbeaten and alone at the top of the leaderboard. But because his path there went straight through yokozuna Hakuho, there is only ONE rikishi immediately trailing him—yokozuna Kakuryu!

The Tochinoshin/Hakuho fight was everything a sumo fan could hope for—cleanly fought, skillful, powerful, and strongly contested. It was the twenty-sixth time the two had gone head-to-head in a honbasho [grand tournament], and it was the first time that Tochinoshin pulled out a win. With 36 wins, a victory over the greatest living rikishi, plus one and possibly two yusho [tournament championships] all in the past three basho, Tochinoshin has pretty much locked in a promotion to ozeki when this tournament is done. He fights M4 Shodai today, and yokozuna Kakuryu tomorrow . . . and if he wins both of those, he’ll secure the yusho.

At the start of the tournament, a bunch of the pundits were saying that Hakuho didn’t look fully fit, and several said they expected him to go kyujo before the full fifteen days passed. I didn’t see it. He looked fully ready to me. In fact, he looked as good as ever. Here on Day 13, though, I can say that I have noticed that as healthy as he is, Hakuho seems to have lost some of his strength. He’s still the fastest and the most skillful rikishi on the dohyo, but he used to be able to physically dominate just about anyone he faced. And throughout this tournament, I’ve seen him get in trouble when the more powerful rikishi have managed to square up and meet him head on. Of course, “trouble” has meant applying techniques that most sumotori can only dream about, and gathering very definitive wins, but even just a year ago he was winning more matches by yorikiri [frontal force out] and now he seems to be relying more on uwatnage [overarm throw].

One way to think about it is that in the past Hakuho would win most of his bouts by guiding his opponents out of the ring (or rolling them onto the clay) and he very rarely wound up getting dirt on himself in the process. In this basho he has wound up having to extend himself such that after or as part of his winning maneuver, Hakuho himself has wound up on the ground too. It’s a small distinction, but I think an important one—he may still be winning 12+ bouts every basho, but he’s not dominating his opponents the way he once did. More importantly, more and more of his opponents seem to come to the match with a glimmer of hope in their eyes (as opposed to the doubt and resignation they’ve had for so many years). Hakuho is still the greatest, and the prohibitive favorite in any basho he enters . . . but I now see the end of his career looming on the horizon, and getting closer all the time.

M15 Tochiozan (7–5) vs. M7 Chiyomaru (5–7)—Tochiozan is trying to secure his kachi-koshi, but Chiyomaru is fighting to stave off make-koshi! High drama indeed! (4:55)
M6 Takarafuji (6–6) vs. M2 Abi (5–7)—Abi had a rough start to his basho with matches (and losses) against all the top-rankers. Now he’s fighting hard to pull a kachi-koshi out anyway, but he must win all of his remaining matches. Takarafuji is only a step better off, needing to win two of his remaining three matches. More high drama! (7:20)
Komusubi Mitakeumi (7–5) vs. M5 Kotoshogiku (7–5)—There is more than a little physical resemblance between these two, and they both are one win away from their kachi-koshi. Kotoshogiku is fighting to remain relevant after his fall from ozeki and sanyaku, while Mitakeumi is struggling to put together good enough performances to make a run at an ozeki promotion. (10:25)
Sekiwake Tochinoshin (12–0) vs. M4 Shodai (7–5)—Tochinoshin, fresh off his victory over Hakuho, must remain focused. He now has a very good chance to win the yusho, particularly if he can beat Shodai today. Meanwhile, Shodai is still trying to get back to sanyaku (where he was for much of 2017) and that begins with securing his kachi-koshi. (11:15)
M5 Ikioi (8–4) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (10–2)—Hakuho must bounce back after his loss to Tochinoshin. Not a problem for him mentally, but he really is beginning to show his age, and he gave it his all yesterday. Meanwhile, Ikioi has been looking good all tournament long and would love to cap that off with a kinboshi [gold star award for a Maegashira-ranked rikishi beating a yokozuna]. (12:55)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (11–1) vs. sekiwake Ichinojo (7–5)—Kakuryu is alone in second place, and if he wants to stay on the heels of Tochinoshin (whom he fights tomorrow), he’s got to beat Ichinojo. On the other hand, Ichinojo still needs one more win to secure his kachi-koshi and retain his sekiwake rank in July . . . but he’s having trouble getting that eighth win.  (15:00)

SUMO: 2018 Natsu Basho (Day 12)

It’s Day 12 of the Natsu Basho, and the drama is getting intense. Sekiwake Tochinoshin remains undefeated and alone at the top of the leaderboard, with the two yokozuna still a single loss behind him. The thing is, today Tochinoshin squares off against Hakuho!

All basho long, I’ve been talking about how the Kyokai [Sumo Association] has told Tochinoshin that his promotion to ozeki requires more than just a certain number of wins—he must also show high quality performance. Most sumo pundits have interpreted that to mean that he must get at least one win against a yokozuna or an ozeki. However, one of the yokozuna and both ozeki are kyujo [absent due to injury], leaving him only two chances to achieve this feat. One of those chances is today in his match against Hakuho. The thing is, in his whole career, Tochinoshin has never beaten Hakuho in a honbasho [grand tournament]—not once in twenty-five previous matches. If he can do it here, he’ll have locked in his ozeki promotion.

One note on Hakuho, though. In his Wednesday match against Shodai, he took a sharp blow to the nose that seemed to very much bother him when the bout was done. It’s possible that he broke it. While such an injury would almost certainly not keep him from competing, but it might well affect the level of the sumo he performs—especially in a brawling match against one of the strongest rikishi around. This really shouldn’t be a problem or a story . . . but depending on what actually happened yesterday, it just might.

Kakuryu dodged a bullet yesterday in his match against komusubi Mitakeumi. It was only the seventh time the two had met, and they’d split the previous six 3–3. Mitakeumi was game, and kept up with the yokozuna step for step and slap for slap, but in the end Kakuryu’s experience won out with a nifty move at the dohyo’s edge.

It’s interesting that Tochinoshin, Hakuho, and Kakuryu are the three rikishi involved in this yusho [tournament championship] race, as these are the three who started the tournament with very specific reasons to want to claim victory. Tochinoshin, of course, is bucking for a promotion to ozeki and winning the yusho would certainly get it for him, regardless of how he performs against the yokozuna. Kakuryu, on the other hand, won the May tournament and has never won back-to-back yusho (a small blot on his record as a yokozuna), and he can feel retirement starting to creep up on him, so this may be his last chance. Meanwhile, Hakuho’s father passed away in April, and he would very much like to win the match to honor the man who was a silver-medalist in Olympic wrestling and a legendary figure back in Mongolia. You couldn’t have scripted a better head-to-head-to-head yusho race, and I’m really enjoying watching it play out. One big “plot point” in this storyline will be resolved in today’s final match.

M8 Yoshikaze (5–6) vs. M11 Daiamami (4–7)—Two solid rikishi trying to turn their performances around before it’s too late. Daiamami will be make-koshi [majority of losses] with one more loss, Yoshikaze can only afford two more. An energetic match that is most notable because it ends with a very rare kimarite [winning maneuver]. (4:35)
M5 Kotoshogiku (6–5) vs. sekiwake Ichinojo (7–4)—Kotoshogiku has been having a very solid basho, but ran into the tournament leader and two yokozuna over the past few days. He wants to get back to his winning ways before things get too desperate. Meanwhile, Ichinojo is starting to come back from his own mid-basho slump, but he still needs one more win to secure his kachi-koshi and his sekiwake rank. (11:30)
Yokozuna Kakuryu (10–1) vs. M5 Ikioi (8–3)—Kakuryu got a little lucky in his win over komusubi Mitakeumi yesterday. Today he faces Ikioi who has been fighting very well despite a nagging leg injury that has him limping off the dohyo after almost every day’s match. (12:40)
Sekiwake Tochinoshin (11–0) vs. yokozuna Hakuho (10–1)—This is it—not only the match of the day, but the match that everyone has been anticipating since the start of the basho. A win for Tochinoshin will pretty much secure his promotion to ozeki, a win for Hakuho will create at least a two-way tie for the lead in the race for the yusho. (13:55)